A general reminder. Debate issues not personalities. At all costs, avoid slurring the morality, character or identity of anyone, or your comments will be deleted. Avoid abusive language. Comments going off into a tanget about veg versus meat will be moved to another thread. Sorry to have to do this. Let's see how things go.
The Divisive Taboo of Halal for Sikhs (from Langar Hall)
Posted by Brooklynwala i
Like many Sikhs, I grew up eating meat. It was something I never really questioned until I was in college and started learning more about the treatment of animals on factory farms and the environmental impact of the meat industry.
But growing up I never thought about where my spicy deep-fried chicken strips were coming from. Or the living (and dying) conditions of the cow that made up the thinly sliced pieces of meat in my Arby’s roast beef sandwich. As long is it wasn’t halal, it was all good.
I never understood what halal truly meant, but the message I got from my parents and others in the community went something like this: Halal is the way Muslims slaughter animals, and it involves killing the animal slowly and painfully. And lots of gushing blood. We Sikhs don’t believe in torturing animals, so we don’t eat halal meat. Sound like a familiar story line?
This, of course, contributed to my perception of Muslims as barbaric people who were dirty, had multiple wives and questionable morals, and killed my ancestors during partition. In the context of the messages I received from family and community growing up, the story about halal fit right in – yet another way Muslims are backwards.
As is abundantly clear in my writing on this blog, this is in stark contrast to how I see Islam and the Muslim community at this point in my life. But I grew up with these messages and stereotypes just like most of my Sikh peers did.
Really, what’s all the fuss about halal? Why aren’t Sikhs supposed to eat halal meat?
Section Six of the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Code of Conduct) states:
The undermentioned four transgressions (tabooed practices) must be avoided:
1. Dishonouring the hair;
2. Eating the meat of an animal slaughtered the Muslim way;
3. Cohabiting with a person other than one’s spouse;
4. Using tobacco.
The most common argument I usually hear to explain the halal ban is simply that the Rehat Maryada says so. No disrespect to the Rehat Maryada or the (attempted) consensus-based process through which it was created in the first half of the 20th Century, but this is not a sufficient reason in and of itself. If the lives our Gurus have taught me anything, it is to think critically, question everything I’m told, and to always keep the love of Waheguru in my heart. So an argument based solely on citation of the Rehat Maryada (which our Gurus were not involved in writing) is not convincing to me.
Another common argument I hear is the aforementioned animal welfare argument: that slaughtering the Muslim way is unnecessarily painful for the animal—it’s a slow death and a form of torture. With jathka meat, on the other hand, the animal is killed swiftly, experiencing minimal pain.
Scientific research reveals a more complicated reality, however. A 1978 German study found that halal slaughtering actually caused less pain to calves and sheep than slaughtering after the animals were stunned by a captive bolt (the industry standard). A more recent New Zealand study, on the other hand, found that stunning reduces the pain of the slaughter. However, according to a study cited by the Guardian last year, “90% of animals killed for halal food in 2004 were stunned first. As in mainstream food production, the animal’s throat is then cut. So this supposedly sinister method, it seems, is not that different after all.”
Research studies aside, the intention of halal (and for Jews, kosher) slaughtering is to minimize pain and suffering to the animal. The Guardian states:
The definition of halal is anything that is legal or lawful for Muslims. In terms of meat, this can apply to what kind of animal is used (not pigs, for instance) and the way they are killed: an animal must be healthy, the butcher must make a recitation dedicating it to God, and the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe are cut with a single swipe from a sharp knife. As with kosher meat, the idea is that the animal dies immediately and the blood drains away. [my emphasis]
And in fact, if the animal is not killed immediately with a single swipe, it is not considered halal.
Thus, not eating halal because of our concern for animal welfare simply doesn’t make sense. If this was our primary concern in our food choices as a community, then I would argue we should talk about a Sikh prohibition of all factory-farmed meats, eggs, and dairy products. Animals on factory farms (or the official term, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs) live in grotesquely unnatural, overcrowded conditions, never seeing the sun or grazing in the grass. Pumped with growth hormones and antibiotics, these animals are treated simply as units of production rather than living beings. There is nothing respectful or humane about the treatment of animals on factory farms, so why are we so concerned about halal and not worried about the cows that become our Big Mac or produce the milk in our cha?
A final explanation of the Sikh ban on halal meat I have often heard is we should not partake in the ritual or sacrificial killing of an animal. Of course, we Sikhs are not proponents of ritual for the sake of ritual:
jaalo aisee reeth jith mai piaaraa veesarai ||
Burn away those rituals which lead you to forget the Beloved Lord.
naanak saaee bhalee pareeth jith saahib saethee path rehai ||2||
O Nanak, sublime is that love, which preserves my honor with my Lord Master. |
(Guru Granth Sahib, p. 590)
But talk to a devout Muslim or Jew about halal or kosher, and you’ll likely find that they think of their respective religion’s practice of killing an animal as a necessary means to show respect to the animal and to God, since the animal is a creation of God. Is saying a prayer and remembering God while ending the life of a living being for the purposes of eating a blind ritual? Even if we don’t see it as a necessary step for our own religious practice as Sikhs, I would argue that it is not fundamentally contrary to the Sikh way of life.
Yes, I am raising questions and concerns about a guidelines set forth in the Rehat Maryada, and perhaps some readers will take issue with that. But over sixty years after our code of conduct was officially approved by the Panth, don’t we owe it to ourselves as a community to continually look inward and ask questions about where we are and where we are going?
From my own observations about the Sikh prohibition of halal meat, it does little to protect the well-being and humane treatment of animals and even less to get us closer to Waheguru. Instead, the prohibition of halal meat spreads misinformation and perpetuates stereotypical and demeaning attitudes about Islam and the Muslim community. While I have heard some say the prohibition is not about halal specifically, but about any sacrificial meat, the Rehat Maryada explicitly singles out “an animal slaughtered the Muslim way.” Rarely do I hear any talk of kosher meat being taboo for Sikhs.
At the heart of Sikhi is Ik Onkar – One Divine Light that shines in all human beings. Waheguru connects us all. Guru Gobind Singh was always clear that the Khalsa’s war was never against Muslim people or Islam, but it was against tyranny, which at the time was epitomized by Aurangzeb’s empire. Sadly, many in the contemporary Sikh community – maybe even a majority – have taken home a different message which they have taught to their kids, and their kids taught to their kids, and so on.
When do we stop this legacy and get back to the heart of Sikhi?
Sikhi is arguably one of the most inclusive philosophies of the major world religions. Yet it seems to me that prohibiting the eating of an “animal slaughtered the Muslim way” serves only to divide.